U professor is leader in neuroscience

by David Hyland

Charles Nelson is just a doctor to the youngsters he studies. They would never expect that, minus a coonskin cap, the child psychology professor is a pioneer as well.
“He’s probably the most important person in the study of brain and behavioral development in human children, bar none,” said Megan Gunnar, a professor in the Institute of Child Development. “He’s way out in the forefront. He is the expert.”
For his trailblazing work that might unlock techniques to prevent learning disabilities, Nelson was recently awarded the Distinguished McKnight award. A grant for $100,000 accompanies the award, which is given out by the University to preeminent faculty members for their contributions.
Richard Weinberg, director of the Institute of Child Development, said the department nominated Nelson for the award.
“We felt he was a real superstar and I think he really is at the cutting edge of bringing neuroscience to bear on understanding human behavior and child development,” Weinberg said.
Nelson, 45, first discovered his interest in neuroscience and behavioral development as an undergraduate at McGill University in Montreal. He pursued his interest in graduate school at the University of Kansas and later at the University of Wisconsin. Before coming to Minnesota in 1986, he taught at Purdue University.
In recent years, many researchers and public officials have expressed the need for an improved understanding of childhood development. Last year, President Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton hosted a White House symposium dealing with the issue. As a result, three senators — including Minnesota Democrat Paul Wellstone — proposed a bill to spend $11 billion on a five-year program to promote early childhood development.
The shifting priorities politicians are proposing would fit perfectly with an agenda Nelson would like to see set.
“What most psychologists do is describe changes in behavior,” Nelson said. “But it doesn’t really tell us why that occurs.”
Nelson wants to better understand the development of the brain and behavior in children, particularly in terms of their memory.
“It’s something we take for granted in our everyday life that we just assume that we have memory,” Nelson said. “Our whole lives are dependent on memory and yet we know relatively little about how that comes about.”
Scientists have divided memory into two types: explicit and implicit. While explicit memory refers to a person’s more conscious memories of the past, implicit pertains to skilled-motor functions, like riding a bike.
Though implicit memory is thought to start early in life, many researchers theorize that explicit memory doesn’t develop until the end of the first year. This is believed because the hippocampus, one of the areas of the brain responsible for memory in adults, is not fully developed.
Nelson, however, disagrees. He said although the hippocampus is under-developed before the first year, the other structures involved with memory are fully developed by that time, such as the cerebral cortex. Nelson proposes that another form of memory, called pre-explicit memory, originates in the first six to eight months.
To expand on his theories, Nelson observes the behavior of children and performs a variety of experiments on both babies and young children.
One method is to record the brain’s electrical activity through electrodes attached to a child’s head while he or she performs cognitive tasks.
For children as young as 6 years old, Nelson uses Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging to detail the atomic images of the brain to see what parts are active during certain tasks.
Nelson said he hopes his work might help researchers understand the mechanisms and relationships that underlie changes in memory. He said understanding such mechanisms can help identify “cognitive deficits” early in children and prevent them from developing into learning disabilities.